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Fourth International Workshop on National Institutions for the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights

05-12-1997 Statement

Item I: "Cooperation between the national institutions for the promotion and protection of human rights". Interministerial committees and other national bodies for international humanitarian law. Statement by the International Committee of the Red Cross, Merida, 27 November 1997

Mr Chairman/Madam Chairwoman, Ladies and Gentlemen,

First of all we should like to thank the Coordinating Committee of the national institutions for the promotion and protection of human rights and the Mexican National Commission for Human Rights for giving the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) the opportunity to take part in and speak at this important event.

I shall begin by making some comments on the relationship between international human rights law and international humanitarian law and on certain aspects of the ICRC's role, and shall then say a few words about the national bodies for the implementation of international humanitarian law which have been set up in some States.

 Human rights law and international humanitarian law  

Mr Chairman/Madam Chairwoman,

Ladies and Gentlemen,

Human rights law and international humanitarian law - also known as the law of armed conflict - are two sets of rules which are similar yet distinct. Their common basis is the respect due to every human being, without any distinction whatsoever . The aim of both is to protect the most basic rights of the individual: the right to life, dignity, and a modicum of freedom and justice. They differ, however, in several respects.

Generally speaking, human rights law aims to promote the full development, on the economic, social, cultural, civil and political levels, of the individual in society. On the other hand, international humanitarian law, which is essential ly contained in the Geneva Conventions of 1949 for the protection of victims of war and their Additional Protocols of 1977 , is a set of emergency rules which apply in exceptional situations, that is, in armed conflicts. Its principal aim is to afford the greatest possible protection for the life, physical integrity and dignity of the individual against violence and arbitrary behaviour. To that end, it regulates and restricts methods and means of warfare and stipulates the basic conditions for protecting and assisting victims. It applies not only to States, but to any party to an armed conflict. Moreover, it allows for no derogations.

Far from conflicting with each other, human rights law and humanitarian law, with their distinct aims and modes of application, are fully complementary in protecting the rights of the individual.

 The ICRC and human rights  

The ICRC's very existence is very closely connected to humanitarian law, which entrusts it with a special responsibility to promote, disseminate, implement, ensure respect for and develop the rules of that law. The ICRC has a dual role to play, as guardian of international humanitarian law and as a humanitarian agency . In the first capacity, the ICRC monitors compliance with the rules of the law by States and parties to conflict. As a humanitarian agency, the ICRC takes direct action in conflict zones to protect victims and bring them assistance. These activities are also carried out in the event of disturbances or collective violence not reaching the level of intensity of an armed conflict.

Although they are carried out in the particular context of war and violence, the ICRC's " operational " activities demonstrate the link that exists between human rights law and humanitarian law. By way of example, when ICRC delegates visit prisoners of war or other detainees and establish a dialogue with the detaining authorities, they are helping to prevent disappearances and torture and thereby protect the lives and physical integrity of the detainees. Similarly, when the ICRC supplies hospitals with medicines and distributes food and clothing to vulnerable people, it is helping to protect their lives and uphold their human dignity.

Respect for the dignity of the individual and the protection of fundamental rights are only possible in a climate in which violations of the law can be prevented or brought to an end, and in which the offenders can be punished. The ICRC's preventive activities, carried out in peacetime, such as spreading knowledge of the provisions of humanitarian law and alerting both the civilian and military authorities and the population in general to the need to ensure respect for those provisions and to take appropriate measures to that end, can help create that climate.

 National measures for the implementation of human rights law and humanitarian law  

Effective application, and hence respect, for human rights law and humanitarian law requires an effort on the part of the signatory States at both international and national level. Adherence to the humanitarian conventions - like adherence to the human rights instruments - can only be the first step on the road to respect for the individual in all circumstances.

In addition to their formal commitment to comply with the treaties, States are under an obligation to take, in peacetime, a series of legislative, statutory and practical measures at national level. For example, they must adopt legislation allowing for the repression of serious violations of humanitarian law, governing the use of the red cross and red crescent emblems and providing for their protection, and ensuring due respect for the guarantees to which prisoners of war, the wounded and sick, the civilian population and all those who are not or no longer actively involved in the hostilities are entitled. States must also take action to ensure that the provisions of humanitarian law become as widely known as possible.

The measures concerned are highly complex and diverse. They touch on numerous spheres of State activity and affect many aspects of public life. Regular consultations, coordination and cooperation between ministries, public authorities, State bodies and other institutions are essential.

 National bodies for humanitarian law  

It is precisely for this reason that more and more governments all around the world - according to the ICRC's information they currently number 41 - have set up commissions, interministerial committees and other specific national bodies to deal with and coordinate matters concerning the application of international humanitarian law. Several States are currently looking at ways of setting up such structures.

In general, the objective and role of these bodies is to advise and assist the government in the promotion and application of international humanitarian law. In some States, this role of " adviser " on humanitarian law is entrusted to government institutions in charge of matters relating to human rights law. This is currently the case of the French National Advisory Committee on Human Rights, the Senegalese Interministerial Committee for Human Rights and Humanitarian Law, the Interministerial Committee for Human Rights and Humanitarian Affairs of the Republic of Zimbabwe and the Namibian Interministerial Technical Committee on Human Rights and Humanitarian Law , to mention just a few.

There is no legal obligation to set up of a specific body for international humanitarian law, States can fulfil their obligations in this respect without having recourse to any formal structure. The way the body is set up, its operation, composition and specific tasks are determined freely by the State establishing it. Consequently, there is a certain degree of flexibility in the role and attributes of these bodies. Nevertheless, those already set up share certain common features which distinguish them from other public or private institutions, in particular:

*  They are attached to the executive branch, and core membership consists of senior government officials from the various ministries concerned. Frequently, representatives of the judiciary and of the legislative branch, experts and academics also take part in their proceedings. Virtually all the bodies work with the country's National Red Cross or Red Crescent Society, which sometimes provides secretariat services.  

*  They act as "advisers" to the government, and generally have advisory authority as to their own attributes; this enables them to formulate proposals and recommendations , sometimes on their own initiative.  

*  The mandates of some bodies encompass a wide range of responsibilities, while others are limited to specific tasks or a given domain. Their areas of activity include:  

*  promoting and preparing for adherence to the humanitarian treaties;  

*  studying and assessing national laws in relation to the obligations arising from the humanitarian treaties;  

*  formulating legislative, statutory and practical measures for the implementation of international humanitarian law, or proposals for amendments to legislation already in force;  

dissemination of international humanitarian law;  

*  the training of qualified personnel in matters relating to international humanitarian law;  

*  studying all issues associated with humanitarian law, including State participation in international conferences on the subject.  

The setting-up of these bodies has been recognized as a major step towards the effective application of humanitarian law and has been encouraged both by the ICRC and by other international institutions. The concrete progress made in national implementation in countries where such structures exist attests to their usefulness.

The ICRC, which for a long time has been actively involved in promoting the adoption of measures for implementing international humanitarian law, willingly offers advice to governments wishing to set up humanitarian law institutions and provides them with technical assistance through its Advisory Service on International Humanitarian Law.  

In October 1996 the ICRC Advisory Service organized a meeting of experts in Geneva to make the role and functions of these institutions more widely known and to encourage the exchange of information and the sharing of experiences in the area of implementation of humanitarian law at national level. Another aim was to facilitate the establishment of contacts and working relations among the national commissions and committees on humanitarian law, and between the latter and the ICRC.

The experts attending the meeting, from more than 70 countries, looked at various practical matters relating to national bodies for humanitarian law - their role, status, structure, composition, area of activity, and method of operation. The conclusions served as a basis for the preparation, by the ICRC, of the Guiding principles concerning the status and methods of operation of national bodies for the implementation of international humanitarian law . These guidelines, which were inspired by the Paris principles adopted for human rights bodies in 1991, are available for any experts here today who may be interested to see them.

With the same object of promoting the exchange of information and establishing contacts between national institutions for international humanitarian law, meetings are also organized at regional level. One such meeting was held in August 1997 in Abidjan and another is planned for Panama at the end of February 1998.

 Cooperation between national institutions for the promotion of human rights and those for humanitarian law  

Mr Chairman/Madam Chairwoman,

Ladies and Gentlemen,

Allow me to draw your attention to one of the principles which concerns the topic under discussion here quite specifically. This principle relates to the need for regular contact and cooperation among national bodies for humanitarian law. In fulfilling their duties, these bodies, like national human rights institutions, come up against the same questions and problems. Consequently, they are advised to develop contacts, exchange information on their respective activities and experiences, and even organize joint activities with institutions of the same type at regional or international level, especially those of countries with similar legal systems.

There are several significant areas where humanitarian law and human rights law converge, especially as regards the setting-up at national level of the necessary legislative, statutory and practical structures for implementation. Thus national institutions and bodies promoting humanitarian law and those concerned with human rights law have many common interests and concerns.

Mutual assistance and the sharing of expertise and experience can only benefit the two types of institution. In our opinion, concerted efforts and cooperation are particularly important when it comes to advising and supporting State authorities in the process of adopting or revising national legislation to meet their obligations under human rights law and humanitarian law. Indeed, it is often the same authorities and experts within a government who are responsible for issues relating to both human rights and humanitarian law. Concerted action is also desirable as concerns education and dissemination of the provisions of human rights law and international humanitarian law, and also in the area of training, in particular of public agents.

It is precisely this link between human rights and humanitarian law which has led some States - for example, France, as already mentioned - to extend the terms of reference of their n ational human rights bodies to include matters relating to humanitarian law, rather than setting up a parallel body for the latter.

The ICRC has already been cooperating for a number of years with the United Nations Centre for Human Rights and with national human rights institutions in the field of dissemination and education. It would very much like to increase this cooperation and develop the other existing channels for consultation, dialogue and concerted action with human rights institutions, at the level not only of the office of the High Commissioner but also of regional and national institutions, both at their headquarters and through their respective delegations, missions and representatives in the field.

Through its Advisory Service on International Humanitarian Law, the ICRC will continue to provide support for governments wishing to set up structures for the promotion of this body of law. It will also pursue and develop its legal and technical cooperation with the national bodies concerned with implementation at national level.

International humanitarian law and human rights law are implemented through the mechanisms afforded by general international law and through certain mechanisms and above all the specific institutions provided for in each branch of the law for this purpose. In spite of differences in approach and orientation arising from the nature of each particular branch of the law and the situations in which it applies, harmonization of these mechanisms and a concerted effort on the part of the relevant institutions, at both international and regional level, can only be beneficial and help promote greater respect for fundamental human values.

Thank you.

Ref. LG 1997-126-ENG